Often, when you ask an audio engineer what his or her most important piece of equipment is, the reply will be, “My ears!” It's a good answer; without great, trained ears, all the other accoutrements of recording are useless. After all, no hearing, no music appreciation, no music purchasing. Elementary, my dear Watson, right? So why do we seem so hell-bent on destroying our ears? From superloud sound at movies, concerts and clubs to snowmobiles, leaf blowers and the earbud-style headphones that we jam into our ear canals for hours at a time (creating, in essence, a compression driver right up against our eardrums!), the amazing and delicate mechanism of the ear is under assault. It may develop so slowly you don't know it's happening, but high noise levels, especially combined with prolonged listening, can cause hearing damage.
Thanks to studies by health organizations and testimonials by high-profile musicians, public awareness is growing and has led to some action. Apple's software updates for the iPod and Nano allow customers to set maximum volume limits. Sony includes a hearing-loss warning with its music players, and the influential Consumer Electronics Association has created a pamphlet, Listening for a Lifetime, for manufacturers to include in packaging. However, we are not hearing a lot about the problem from audio professionals. We've all worked with producers, either unaware or in denial, who seem to have a “notch” in certain frequencies due to years of monitoring loud — and bright — in the studio. I have a good friend who spent years punching in loud vocals with one ear turned to the monitors as he worked the tape machine remote placed to his side — guess which ear doesn't work so well anymore? Why does this happen?
Early in my career, I was lucky to have as a mentor the extremely talented — and no-nonsense — San Francisco Bay Area engineer Fred Catero. Fred had paid plenty of dues to learn his craft and had worked his way up to preeminence. On one of my very first sessions as an assistant, he taught me that the band needed to have the mains turned up loud when they came into the control room for playback. He also taught me that was a good time for the engineer to step out into the hall. Fred was not only practical about preserving his assets, he was confident and in-demand enough to set ground rules on a session. These days in our competitive field, many audio professionals not only don't want to talk about hearing loss, they don't want to say “no” to a client who's asking for dB levels that are just plain unhealthy.
Keith Olsen, another very talented and equally no-nonsense producer/engineer, offers these suggestions. Use earplugs during tracking when you're out in the room with the band (which is a place he recommends you be!). Okay, you might get a little hoarse from yelling all day — it's worth it. Make sure your control room doesn't “load up.” If the room has so many reflections that you get frequencies canceling each other, then you'll have destructive interference and you'll tend to keep turning up the volume. Use headphones in the control room so you can control the level you hear when “louder” is requested. (Tell them you're checking the mix on the 'phones.) Use your engineering expertise to make the small speakers sound great! You'll get better mixes that way anyway. And use your expertise in psychology to convince your clients to turn down. After all, you're making music for the people who buy it, right? They're going to be listening at 85 dB or less.
So listen up and turn down. You've got a lot invested in your ears — protect them!
Maureen Droney is the executive director of the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy.